It's been 10 years since uprisings swept the Arab world, and many countries are in a demonstrably worse position than they were back then: Libya remains bitterly divided between warring sides, Egypt ruled by a dictator more repressive than the one that was toppled, Yemen is the bloody arena for proxy wars and on the brink of famine, and Syrians are still the largest forcibly displaced population in the world. But one country is seen as the sole success story of the Arab Spring, the one where it all began.
Since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia on 14 January 2011, the country he ruled with an iron fist for 24 years has held three democratic elections. The pluralistic government of today is represented by Islamists, secularists, rightists, leftists and everyone in between. Women make up more than 25% of all members of parliament. In comparison to its neighbours, Tunisia has largely been stable and peaceful.
But despite the many gains, under the surface there is a deep frustration brewing among the country’s youth, frustration that this year spilled out onto the streets, just as it did a decade ago.
“Ten years ago, we were against Ben Ali,” said Ahmed, an unemployed 23-year-old from the Tadamon neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital Tunis. “But now there is no specific person. We are against those who are against us. We are against those who are against our dreams.”
Ahmed, not his real name, was 13 during the revolution and grew up thinking that once Tunisians toppled a dictator anything was possible. But the political gains didn’t translate into economic opportunities and today at least one out of three Tunisians under 25 is unemployed, and thousands continue to leave on boats across the Mediterranean every year for a better life in Europe. It’s working-class areas like Tadamon where the economic stagnation is hardest.
“Here in Tadamon nothing has changed, 2011 is similar to 2021,” Ahmed said.
As Tunisians marked the 10th anniversary of Ben Ali’s downfall this month, thousands of young people like Ahmed began breaking nightly COVID curfews to protest in Tadamon and other marginalised areas around the country where others similarly feel neglected by the government in Tunis. Ahmed says that he and his friends have been demonstrating peacefully, but that others have clashed with police, and committed acts of looting and vandalism that drew harsh condemnation by politicians and the media.
“The situation is getting worse and people are fed up. They’re full of negative energy that was shown on TV: people went out to start fires and ask for their rights.”
In response the police waged a crackdown arresting more than 1,000 people across the country. Ten years ago it was social media that helped spread the word of the revolution, but now police were using it to identify people who were taking part in the nightly protests.
It’s hard to imagine that a series of uprisings in countries spanning two continents could trace their origin to one singular event. But for the Arab Spring of 2011, there’s never been any doubt: Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation.
The street vendor was protesting harassment by the authorities when he covered himself in gasoline and lit a flame outside a government building in the city of Sidi Bouzid in protest. As he was taken to hospital and vendors and other locals began to gather in anger, Ali Bouazizi, Mohamed’s close friend and cousin, filmed the unprecedented demonstrations and posted about them on Facebook. Within hours he was contacted by the pan-Arab news channel, Al Jazeera.
Ali’s first-person accounts of what was happening in a small city that few had ever heard of, in the middle of a country that everyone knew to be one of the region’s most repressive, were played on televisions from Marrakech to Baghdad, from Sana’a to Cairo. People across the Arab world could sense something profound was taking place.
“That was the beginning of the end because Ben Ali was exposed in the media,” Bouazizi told VICE World News. In early January 2011, Mohamed succumbed to his wounds as protests spread throughout Tunisia, eventually reaching the capital Tunis where endless crowds defied police orders and gathered on the main Bourguiba Avenue, named after Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ali’s predecessor and until that point the only other president of Tunisia. Once the army started siding with demonstrators, Ben Ali knew his time was up and fled with his family to Saudi Arabia.
“It was a big victory because after the revolution everything was erased,” Bouazizi said. “It was a new start for Tunisia.”
Today Bouazizi runs a minimarket not far from where his friend set himself alight. It’s stacked with chocolates, cleaning products, and fresh bread, both the local taboon and baguettes, a remnant of the colonial period in Tunisia. During a midday rush men come in one after another to buy loose cigarettes to enjoy with their post-lunch coffees.
If it weren’t for a large portrait of Mohamed just a few blocks away, a visitor could easily mistake Sidi Bouzid for any one of the dusty towns and cities in the center of Tunisia.
Bouazizi, who was an opposition activist under Ben Ali and imprisoned as a young man, says he understands the frustration of today’s youth, and finds the protests happening across the country a legitimate form of self expression that he didn’t have growing up here.
Like many, he points to the troubles of Tunisia’s neighbours as a sign of its comparative progress, proudly stating that in Tunisia “there is no revenge, no bloodshed, no killings.” But he also blames the country's novel political class for its inability to deliver meaningful change.
“We the Tunisian people offered the politicians their job on a silver platter after the revolution. Unfortunately, they didn’t use it well.”
In the grand halls of the heavily fortified Tunisian parliament we catch up with Oussama Sghaeir, a Tunisian MP. He walks around unmasked, like many of his colleagues, as he said he had recently recovered from COVID-19 and was no longer contagious.
Sghaeir’s story is remarkable in many ways and personifies all that the revolution has achieved. His father had been a member of Ennahda, a party outlawed under Ben Ali, and sought asylum in Italy. At 10, Sghaeir joined him in Italy, where he grew up delivering pizzas on his scooter. When protests began in Tunisia, Sghaeir was 27 and held solidarity demonstrations in Italy. After Ben Ali left Tunisia, Sghaeir returned home for the first time in 17 years. Then in 2014, he was elected as a lawmaker for Ennahda.
“It was something totally unexpected, a dictator, one of the Arab dictators is suddenly not there anymore, he’s gone,” Sghaeir said of the revolution. “The country is free and the military didn’t want to take over and it gave power to the civilians, it was a dream.”
Ennahda is now the largest party in the Tunisian parliament and governs as part of a coalition, after being transformed from an underground opposition by its leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who serves as Speaker of Parliament. It has become the focus of anger during the recent youth-led protests. Sghaeir says the party has been hampered by the lack of unity in government.
“We need time,” Sghaeir says, defending the party’s record, and the slow pace of progress “We need some kind of consensus to do the reforms.”
He pointed to Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood – Ennahda’s Islamist ally – won the country’s first democratically-held elections only to be overthrown in a military coup, leaving the country now under the rule of the authoritarian former general Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
“If you look to history and what happened in revolutions, revolutions in some countries can take 30, 100 years [to succeed],” Sghaeir said. “We're trying to [succeed] here in Tunisia in much less time, and I think we are … going in the right direction.”
Ten years after its revolution, many young people don’t want to wait another decade for change to come.
After the police arrests following the recent protests, students and other young political activists held a demonstration in central Tunis to protest the crackdown.
Storming through the streets of the capital that would otherwise be bustling if not for a lockdown measures, the few-thousand strong demonstrators recycled slogans of the Arab Spring, chanting “The people want the downfall of the regime.”
“We got rid of Ben Ali and his family, but then we got many little Ben Alis that steal the resources of the country that are corrupt,” said Narimen Zorgui, a 19-year-old student. “We see the corruption and the government turning a blind eye towards it, but then if a kid my age goes in the streets and expresses their genuine frustration with this they will take them and put them in jail.”
As the vociferous crowd marched briskly some looked on offering their support, most with a look of indifference. Despite calls from some of the marchers for another second revolution, it was clear it wouldn’t be happening today.
Once the protest reached the tree-lined Bourguiba Avenue it was stopped by lines of riot police before it was able to make its way to the Ministry of Interior. The building had been infamous under Ben Ali for hosting the government’s myriad security forces who tortured and disappeared dissidents. It remains a focal point for demonstrations today.
“Bourguiba Ave is one of the main parts of our Tunisian revolution, it’s very symbolic. So if they prevent us from going there it’s like they’re telling us you’re never allowed to express your opinions ever again,” Narimen said.
Police were decked out in full riot gear but appeared under clear orders to exercise restraint. Despite pushing from protesters and a number of projectiles, they didn’t respond with force. A rare sight in an Arab country, or in many other parts of the world these days.
As the standoff continued and the crowd of protesters thinned, Mehdi, a 17 year old from Ibn Khaldoun, a working-class area of the capital where protests have been happening, complained that ten years of Tunisians paying taxes to the new post-revolution government hadn’t yielded results for people like him. “Our educational system is weak and fragile and the health care doesn't treat people,” he said adding that his father had been turned away from a private clinic for lack of funds.
“I don’t have a future in Tunisia,” Mehdi said. They tell us to have a basic level of education and then immigrate. They literally tell us to leave, to run from this country, because there’s nothing good left.”